Category Archives: Gear Reviews

REVIEW: Toothsome Tones from Yellowcake’s Furry Burrito

I’m a big fan of cake, let it be known far and wide. All kinds of cake, really: carrot cake, coffee cake, Devil’s Food, German Chocolate, the band Cake, ice cream cake, and especially Red Velvet, which seems to get a lot of hate and is often erroneously thought of as “just chocolate cake that is red.” This is a guitar blog, but I’m tempted to spend the rest of this article explaining exactly why that’s so, so wrong. It’s offensive, really.

For whatever reason, I’ve been in a yellow cake phase for well over a year. I mean, with so many flavors out there, why settle for boring old yellow? There’s just something about that buttery-sweet taste that’s arrested my tastebuds, I really can’t explain it. Except now that I think of it, this craving coincides with the arrival of one of the coolest pedals I’ve ever owned, one which has cemented its place in every incarnation of my guitar and bass rigs since: The Yellowcake Furry Burrito.

Maybe there’s a connection.

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All-Purpose Fuzz

The Yellowcake Furry Burrito is a fuzz pedal, but not just––the fuzz circuit cascades into an on-board overdrive, reminiscent of the old practice of “stacking” gain stages for maximum saturation, only here it’s in a single unit. In this way the Furry Burrito offers uniquely full-bodied sounds, mating a buttercream Muff-like fuzz and the midrange and clarity of a good overdrive. Even at its most boisterous settings, this pedal never loses definition and potency.

Four knobs adorn the pedal’s pastel enclosure: Gain, Drive, Filter, and Level. Gain and Drive control the amount of fuzz and drive, respectively. Taking turns with each knob shows off the pedal’s unique versatility: favoring the Drive knob gives way to the sweeter side of the Burrito, but Gain is where the decadent fuzz circuit resides. Mixing the two offers a near-endless variety of tones that blur the lines between the two famous effects.

The control labeled “Filter” is your basic variable low-pass which governs the amount of treble frequencies present. However, even at its most extreme settings the pedal retains its personality, never sounding too crystalline or mushy. If you prefer your amps dark like me, you’ll find that the Filter knob can act as a sort of fixer where other fuzz pedals may become too gummy. 

The FAT switch, as you might have guessed, is a two-position selector that offers a boost to the bottom. The ‘down’ position is the pedal’s vanilla setting, and while it’s certainly thinned out compared with the alternative choice, it is by no means washed out or icy. Engaging the switch caramelizes the low end into monstrous bass sounds and warm leads. This pedal loves low frequencies.

The real surprise here is the LED indicator, which doubles as a voltage trim pot. This lets you starve the circuit, introducing all of the sputtery, ripping goodness we all so enjoy in a good fuzz. This, combined with the two flavors of grit, makes the pedal singularly versatile.

Suggested Recipes

At its most polite settings this pedal won’t get you to clean boost territory. What you’re far more likely to find here is a robust drive with some RAT-like edge. What it lacks in subtlety, it more than makes up for in bold sounds as rendered here in my very first encounter with the pedal some sixty-six weeks prior to this post:

These Pinkerton-esque sounds were produced with Drive and Gain both set right around the mid-point into my Fender Excelsior Pro. With my old Jazzmaster, I was surprised by the nearly authentic “The Good Life” sounds that were coming out of it. You know me, all of my gear-tasting begins and ends with Weezer tunes.

The Furry Burrito positively blooms where more chaotic sounds are concerned. Rolling up the Gain and Drive knobs, the pedal becomes a sumptuous wall of thick fuzz, especially with the FAT switch in the ‘up’ position. The ample, peanut butter thick low end fluffs the signal without over overstepping the bounds of good taste (unless you wanted it to). Think Smashing Pumpkins and Dinosaur Jr.

It was this side of the Furry Burrito’s flavor profile that inspired my cover of “Silent Night,” which I recorded early in December of 2016. I ran the Yellowcake into a Strymon Bluesky set for a large hall verb, then ran the stereo signal to my ’65 Fender Bassman piggyback on one side and my ’79 Marshall JMP and mock 8×10” (4×12”) cabinet on the other. When the dirt kicks in at 57 seconds, what you’re hearing is the Yellowcake pedal, those amps, and my old Jazzmaster. I’m really proud of that sound. Have a listen:


Perfect Pairing

It’s also worth mentioning that the Furry Burrito pairs beautifully with other pedals.  When introduced in front of my old standard, the Smallsound/Bigsound FUCK Overdrive, the cascading effect of the creamy fuzz slamming into the FUCK, which added some sweetness and depth while the Furry Burrito happily drenched it in a gooey  ganache of fuzz. When used after my Z.Vex Fuzz Factory, I ended up with an even bigger, wider array of squishier tones. The pairing of the Factory and the Burrito also proved useful for added chaos at the very end of “Silent Night.” You can hear them together at the 1:46 mark, when I go behind the bridge for for the big finish.

This pedal is one of the rare few that’s as at-home on bass as with a guitar, especially with the voltage trimmer rolled back a bit. It also totally nails some of my favorite bass fuzz tones, including Beastie Boys‘ “Sabotage.”

Cooling Rack

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The Furry Burrito fits in perfectly with Kali’s color-coordinated rig

Having owned this pedal for so long, I should be able to tell you all about its strengths and its weaknesses, but it’s shockingly difficult to come up with criticism.

Yesterday, I showed the pedal off to my good friend Kali Kazoo, one of LA’s most unique and colorful songwriters. Touring the pedal’s various features and settings with Kali, I realized that the LED trimmer, while novel, is easily overlooked. There’s no visual “TURN ME” cue as you’d might expect, no overt declaration of its function. Being a clear, back-lit knob, I also wish for a contrasting indicator so settings are easier to recall. As it stands, my favorite setting for the trimmer is “turned to one side and then back a little bit.

Surely it’s not an exact measurement, but I often adjust according to taste anyway. As far as complaints go, that’s Angel’s Food. Cake jokes.

Have Your Yellowcake and Eat It Too

At $165 street, this pedal is a steal. If you’re on the market for a good, versatile fuzz that can do a lot more than just big, meaty sounds and keeps its composure, definitely keep this pedal in mind. If you find other popular fuzzes too capricious, the Furry Burrito would be an excellent option for you as well. Me, I can’t even think of leaving this pedal off of my board.  You know, I’m glad I don’t have to.

My board from the most recent LeoLeo tour.

My board from the most recent LeoLeo tour.

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Fender American Pro Jazzmaster & Jaguar: First Impressions and In-Depth Review

Earlier this year, message boards and forums lit up with rumors of Fender’s 2017 American Pro series guitars, especially the Jazzmaster and Jaguar models in the range. Appearing to be a more affordable and streamlined alternative to the AVRI line, speculation ran wild as to what the series might offer. Me, I couldn’t wait.

img_4324Fender began sending them out to musicians and social media stars late in the year (where’s the love?!) but kept quiet about specs. Much of what was known about the models was deduced by blowing up blurry Instagram photos and leaked catalogue pages. Excitement soared, and soon I was buried under requests for The Jazzmaster Guy’s take on the new models.

I’m happy to say I finally had the chance to take both guitars for a spin yesterday while Hollywood Guitar Center with my best friend Vanessa Wheeler of Leo Leo. With her help, I’d like to walk you through some of our thoughts and impressions of these new guitars. Are they any good? Worth the money? Fun to play? Read on and find out.

 

Mystic Seafoam is a win for both of us

Mystic Seafoam is a win for both of us

Visuals

Fit and finish on these guitars is superb. In typical Fender Corona fashion, there wasn’t a cosmetic flaw to be found.

Let it be known far and wide that Mystic Seafoam may be the best color Fender have produced in years. No photo––not even mine––will do it justice. It demands attention, which is how we spotted it from across the room the moment we walked on the sales floor. So visually arresting is this color that we paid zero attention to any other instrument on the wall. I think I heard Vanessa mutter “Oh, wow!” under her breath.

I wish I could say the same for Sonic Grey. I was excited to see it in person ever since Jimmy Vivino posted his own grey Jazzmaster on Instagram, but it just didn’t do it for me. Vanessa pointed out that my reaction to the color might come down to the plastics: Mystic Seafoam is paired with parchment while Sonic Grey is clad in stark white, which lends a sort of harshness to the guitar’s visual palette. Of course, this is just me.

Also new for this series: glossy maple fretboards! While this isn’t a first for Fender, this uncommon feature hasn’t previously been offered as standard on offsets. The necks seemed pale in photos, but the wood has a much warmer hue in reality.

Feel

Sonic Grey. Eh, I keep going back and forth on this one.

Sonic Grey. See, I’m looking at it now and I sort of like it??? Argh.

These guitars felt super solid from the first moment we took them off the wall. Vanessa found them a bit heavy, but that seems to be the norm with new guitars. Strummed acoustically, all models exhibited loud and pleasant tonalities, which usually translates to a good plugged-in sound.

Fender introduced the new “Deep C” neck profile with this series, which you’ll notice immediately when you pick one up. Vanessa, whose chord vocabulary is from another planet altogether, didn’t seem as encumbered by the extra girth as I was at first, but I got used to it quickly. It’s substantial but never crosses over into “boat neck” territory, starting out slightly chunky at the first fret and gradually fattening toward the 12th. Compared with AVRI62 necks of either model, this profile will definitely give you something more to hold on to.

While I firmly believed they would not be my thing, the extra height of the 22 “narrow-tall” frets made for easy bends and meant I rarely felt the fretboard under my fingertips. This is good, because I always seem to get stuck on gloss maple. While rosewood is an option for the range, currently Seafoam and Grey are only available with maple fretboards. In contrast, the lone white Jaguar on the wall was equipped with a rosewood fretboard.

The addition of the Micro-Tilt adjustment to the neck pocket is absolutely genius. Having an adjustable mechanical shim on an offset guitar will make setups a breeze. I never would have considered this!

Playability

No matter the brand, factory setups are often anything but; action high enough to mitigate buzz yet low enough to be playable. I have to say, the setups on these guitars were pretty decent! The Mystic Seafoam model wowed both of us with its easy action and tunefulness, while the Sonic Grey guitar left something to be desired but was passable. Fretwork seemed clean across all models.

Now for the heavy criticism: both E strings are unthinkably close to the fretboard edges on all three of the guitars we demoed, so close that it was nearly impossible to fret the high E string without slipping off the fretboard. This seems like something that should have been corrected during the R&D phase. Quite literally the first comment Vanessa made when she sat down with the guitar was how hard it was to play the Es, a sentiment I echoed.

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The extra width also means strings don’t line up with bridge pickup pole pieces.

Mustang-style bridges typically have wider string spacing, but this is extreme. Even with nylon bushings that improve bridge stability, I honestly think that changing the bridge is going to be an incredibly common if not required mod on these guitars. (NOTE: I wasn’t able to pull the bridge, so I’m not sure which thimble set they’ve installed on these guitars, which could be an added bridge-swapping headache like the Classic ’60s models.)

My only other major complaint is that the Jazzmaster’s pickup selector switch has been moved to an exceptionally inconvenient place, a place where many players already complain about a switch being there. How often do you see players tape off the rhythm circuit so it’s not accidentally engaged, after all. This move is truly perplexing.

Depending on play style, this could be a huge issue for certain players. If you do a lot of tapping, slapping, popping, and plucking like Vanessa, this switch is totally in the way.

Compare the toggle switch positions. L: Fender AM-PRO R: Squier VM

Compare the toggle switch positions. L: 2017 Fender AM-PRO R: 2011 Squier VM

After adjusting her right hand technique, it still seemed uncomfortable. She opined, “If I owned this, I’d have to move the switch.”

Switch clearance may not be as crucial for power chord junkies like myself, but if I’m even a little more animated it becomes an issue for me too. Vigorous strummers, be forewarned.

This seems like a bit of a misstep when even the older Squier Vintage Modified hard tail models had the selector switch higher on the upper horn. Should you wish to move the switch back to the traditional placement, you’ll need to do some extra routing.

Sound

Describing the sound of the new V-Mod Jazzmaster pickups, Vanessa coined the term “magnety.” I can’t say I can come up with a better word for it. They’re hotter, fuller, and snappier than Fender’s more recent designs, and they have a special sort of attack to them that’s really nice.

They are also very bright. Brighter than I expected, and this from a Jazzmaster fanatic. Vanessa favors chimey tones yet found herself rolling off the tone control drastically before she was comfortable. In fact, when she finally handed it off to me I thought, “Oh wow, these are pretty dark pickups!” No, I just hadn’t noticed the tone knob was at 5.

We ran these guitars through a Fender Bassbreaker combo. While Vanessa compensated for the brightness by cranking up the bass on the first channel, I switched over to the second and turned the tone knob to 0. Once I did that, I’d have to say I rather liked them, but bright guitars into dark amps is kind of my thing.

What about the Jaguar? Honestly, neither of us cared for these pickups. They lacked any of the wiry treble or round bass of good Jag pickups, sounding quite honky and almost notched in the midrange. Granted there was only one at GC; I wish there were another to contrast and compare.

The factory-installed treble bleed was subtle yet functional on both models. As for the noise floor, these are single coils so some noise is expected. While the 60 cycle hum was definitely there, I wouldn’t say it was necessarily worse than any other Jazzmaster or Jaguar pickup on the market.

The American Pro Jaguar in Olympic White

The American Pro Jaguar in Olympic White

The stripped-down simplicity of the control schemes ensure these Pro-series guitars will be immediately useful to players unfamiliar with the various rollers and switches. Both guitars have volume, tone, and pickup selector controls, which couldn’t be more straightforward. I was especially happy to see the 4-way Johnny Marr switching included on the Jaguar, which adds the versatility of a series position.

I definitely miss the “Strangle” switch on the Jaguar. Fender replaced the vintage-correct low-cut filter with an out-of-phase setting for the selector’s 2 and 4 positions. Not that I have anything against out-of-phase sounds, I just find a switch that works on all positions more useful than one that works on two. Both may only be situationally useful for most players (it got a shrug from Vanessa) so let’s call this a minor quibble.

Of course, as an avid Rhythm Circuit user, I’m sad at its omission but I’m also enough of a realist to know that not everybody uses the thing. The American Pro series isn’t meant to be a vintage reissue, so some play with the design is to be expected.

Assorted Minutiae For Which I Could Not Devise a Snappy Subheading

Both Jazzmasters had their knobs situated with 6 where 10 should have been, making sorting out preferred settings a bit of a hassle. Strangely, this also matches the Fender promotional photos. In my best Seinfeld I cry out, “What’s the deal?”

None of the three guitars we sampled had their vibrato arms installed, which is a shame because I wanted to find out how the new screw-in collet compared with the push-in variety. I’ve read that there’s play in the arm unless it’s screwed in all the way so that it doesn’t pivot at all, but I wasn’t able to confirm or deny such things here. As far as I could tell, the rest of the trem is the same as those found on AVRI reissues, so it should be stable and smooth enough.

I did strum a chord and pushed down on the vibrato with my index finger, and it seemed to hold tune just fine on both Jazzmasters. The Jag had tuning problems due to a poorly-cut nut, popping and pinging with every turn of the machines.

The Verdict

When I first heard rumblings of these fresh takes on my Fender favorites, I was really looking forward to trying them out. I like that Fender have something in their catalog that bridges the gap between the affordable import lines and the more expensive US vintage reissues, trading some traditional features to hit the $1499 price point. Simplifying the control scheme also helps these guitars appeal to the no-nonsense crowd.

Vanessa and I both agree that the Fender American Pro Jazzmaster and Jaguar are fundamentally good guitars, especially for the price. They felt and sounded great once dialed in, and most importantly, we had fun trying them out. We had some very minor complaints overall, but very little that would stop us from recommending them. The only possible deal breaker is the string spacing issue, but that could be easily corrected by swapping the bridge for a Mastery or Staytrem, which so many of us do already. Just like the impending new year, everything’s different but nothing is different at all.

Overall, these guitars are worth your time to check out, so grab one and see what you think. My critique notwithstanding, I still want to bag one for myself!

A big thank-you to Vanessa for offering some impressions on these new instruments. Follow her on Instagram, buy her music, see her live. She’s so good. Guitar shopping with friends, is there anything better?

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A Note on Gibson’s Recent Price Increase and Spec Changes

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Earlier this week, Gibson released (or was it leaked?) statements concerning a price increase and changes to most of their models that left most of the guitar community feeling underwhelmed. Now, bear in mind that the source for this announcement was from Gibson’s Amazon.com page, the URL for which is no longer active. Could be a mistake, but our friends at Reverb.com, while unable to reveal their sources, have confirmed that the announcement is indeed genuine. (See comments)

Before we get into it, I want to say that I’m concerned by this announcement but only because I love Gibson’s instruments so much. Sure, we’re way into Jazzmasters and the like here, but I cut my teeth on Gibson guitars. Some of my earliest musical memories are deeply connected to the image and sound of Angus Young’s fleet of SGs, Jimmy Page’s EDS-1275 doubleneck, Johnny Marr’s ES-355, and I’ve always idolized the classiness of a white Les Paul Custom. My first “real” guitar was an early graduation gift from my parents, a black Gibson Les Paul Standard that they picked up for well under street price. And I got that one because high school Michael saw an old photo of Joe Perry playing almost the exact thing. Some of the best guitars I’ve owned were Gibsons, from my ’77 Walnut ES-355 to the ’68 SG Standard I sold to Other Mike for what would become my trusty Jazzmaster. I’ve owned various Les Paul Jrs, a stunning ’59 ES-330, and Gibson J-series acoustics that have blown my mind. My current acoustic is a ’64 J-50 that’s played-in and beat up, but sounds huge; the guitar I sold to fund that purchase was an ’03 J-45, which was the best acoustic I’d ever played until the ’64 came into my life.

My hope in responding to this announcement isn’t simply to complain, but to come from a place of deep respect for a company that’s meant so much to me over the years; a company that, as it seems to this casual observer, has been in decline for some time. This week’s announcement feels like an even steeper descent to me, and though I have little voice on the issue, it felt right to call out what appears to be another major misstep.

Let’s take a look at the text:

“Gibson USA continues to raise the bar of Quality, Prestige and Innovation with the new line up of 2015 guitars. All Gibson USA guitars except for the Les Paul Supreme, Firebird and Derek Trucks SG will ship with the G-Force tuning system. Among many of the added features is the new Zero Fret Nut which is a patented applied for nut that has adjustable action capabilities. The new Tune-O-Matic Bridge features a hex wrench adjustment on thumbscrews for easy action adjustments. All guitars receive a professional set up with accurate intonation, and a new PLEK program with 27% lower fret wire. All models now have Pearloid Inlays and the fingerboard is a thicker one piece rosewood which is sanded and buffed with a new oil treatment for smoother and easier playability. To take it a step further Gibson USA has increased playing comfort by widened the neck and fingerboard by .050 per side. Sparing no expense, Gibson USA even changed the internal wires from 28 awg to 26 awg, along with a new and improved jack design and together they give you an improved uninterrupted signal. For 2015 Gibson will be producing gloss lacquer finishes and no more Satin or Vintage Gloss finishes. On top of all the upgrades Gibson USA did not stop there. They are now introducing a removable Les Paul pick guard with NO SCREWS NEEDED. In honor of Les Paul’s 100th birthday all LP and SG guitars will carry the 100 logo on the headstock and a Les Paul Hologram on the back of the headstock for authenticity and tribute to the man himself. To wrap everything up, each 2015 Gibson USA guitar ships in a Gibson Hard Shell case.”

That’s a lot to take in, so let’s go through it piece by piece.

“All Gibson USA guitars except for the Les Paul Supreme, Firebird and Derek Trucks SG will ship with the G-Force tuning system.”

That’s a pretty huge statement. Note that it says “All Gibson USA guitars…” with three exceptions listed. The above leads me to the conclusion that the Les Paul Custom, SG, Flying V History, Trini Lopez, Les Paul Traditional, Grace Potter V, RD Artist, etc. will all include the G-Force tuning system. Does this also include acoustic models? I ask because the language used is “All Gibson USA” and not “All Gibson Memphis” or “All Gibson Nashville”, without mention of Gibson Montana.

aa430cc388df770d58f3c7bf2eb194a99248353cThe G-Force system (not pictured above) if you didn’t know, is just Gibson’s Min-ETune but rebranded. Part of the evolution of the Robot system, the Min-ETune promised quicker and more accurate tuning with a smaller overall footprint, taking the tuning facilities out of the signal path of the pickups completely. Never a fan of self-tuning guitars personally, I certainly can’t fault Gibson for developing a product, but to force that product onto every model –– a product that most musicians don’t seem to want –– doesn’t seem like a wise move.

As a tech, I’ve worked on plenty of the Robot and Min-ETune guitars, but would you guess that one of the most frequent requests I’ve gotten with the lower-model Robot guitars is to remove the Robot tuners and convert them to a normal guitar? At first, it was because the battery life wasn’t feasible for most touring acts. (I mean, who has time to charge their guitar between sets?) Later, either the owner felt the tuners weren’t dependable or didn’t look good, which I’ve heard quite a few times. The Robot models were fundamentally great guitars, so it wasn’t much of a problem to put them back to, um, regular guitar specs.

LP-Std-HeroOf course, some people find the Robot/Min-ETune guitars to be useful, and that’s great! I knew a guy that used his blueburst first-edition Robot Les Paul and loves it because he can go from Standard to any number of slide tunings he uses on a regular basis. It works for him, and that’s great. However, it seems to be a smaller subset of players that actually want guitars to tune themselves, and offering the Min-ETune as standard across the board doesn’t make me want to purchase a new Gibson any time soon.

“Among many of the added features is the new Zero Fret Nut which is a patented applied for nut that has adjustable action capabilities.”

One of the most common complaints players have about factory-fresh Gibson guitars is that the nut isn’t up to snuff. Either the owner isn’t happy with Corian or Tektoid™ as a nut material, or it’s improperly cut at the factory with the strings too high off the fretboard or pinging wildly with string bending. One of the most frequent jobs I take for Gibson guitars is replacing the nut with a hand-cut piece of bone.

61y2CirnMkL__SL1500__zps9c453266_uofv8cThe new Gibson “Zero Fret Nut” is a nut that has an adjustable brass insert that allows the user to fine-tune action without having to use files. (This idea isn’t exactly new; for years Warwick has offered an adjustable nut on some of their models.) The brass insert also mimics the zero fret found on old Gretsch and Teisco guitars, which governed string height at the first fret by being taller than the other frets while doing away with the need for exacting nut shaping techniques. Traditional zero frets also have the added effect of making open notes sound as if they’re being fretted, resulting in brighter tones from open strings. This was also the goal with the brass nut craze of the ’70s and ’80s, a modification that’s largely reversed on most instruments today.

I can see how this new Zero Fret Nut makes sense from a manufacturing standpoint; workers don’t have to spend more time trying to properly slot nut after nut all day long, which takes up time and money. Instead, they can simply use a small tool to raise the strings until they’re at a satisfactory height, then send it out the door. However, we know from Gibson’s adjustable acoustic bridge of the ’60s that having movable parts at such critical points in the string path isn’t necessarily a recipe for great tone. And although there are some players who prefer brass nuts on their guitars, with the market so obsessed with vintage originality and “tone” most brass nuts are tossed with preference for era-correct materials.

As a tech, I can see myself replacing a lot of these next year.

“The new Tune-O-Matic Bridge features a hex wrench adjustment on thumbscrews for easy action adjustments.”

I’m not going to poo-poo this out of hand, as we’ve all been stuck with too-low or too-high action on a guitar with a TOM bridge and have had to struggle with gripping thumbwheels as hard as we can before the next song starts. The proper way would always be to loosen the strings before adjusting action, but I won’t pretend that not everyone wants to go to that trouble. Of course, thumbwheels aren’t always hard to turn, but anything that makes adjustment easier is potentially a good thing.

The only objection I have to this change is that Allen keys aren’t usually my favorite way to make bridge adjustments, whether it be action or intonation. The Mastery Bridge is an exception to this, being designed with ease of use in mind, but adjusting intonation with hex keys on most other bridges is not fun at all. I’m also curious to how exactly this thumbscrew adjustment works, whether the key inserts at the top or from the side. Without more info, I really don’t know how this might play out.

“All guitars receive a professional set up with accurate intonation, and a new PLEK program with 27% lower fret wire.”

As a tech, I’m somewhat glad to hear this. If these factory setups are actually setups, then I’m excited to walk into a shop and play an on-the-rack Gibson and know it’s going to feel great. Factory “setups” are often disappointing, with action left high to hide bad fret jobs, lessening buzz and rattle that shouldn’t be there in the first place. I mean, sure, a percentage of my business comes from fixing factory mistakes, but if this means that a customer can buy a guitar knowing that it feels good, then that can’t be a bad thing. I’ll try to hold off judgement on this until I play one, because the track record for factory adjustments isn’t good.

blog_P1040558-300x221Although I’ve never been too happy with factory PLEK fret jobs, I’m looking forward to seeing what this new program holds for consumers. Again, taking a guitar off the guitar shop wall and knowing it’s going to have perfectly leveled frets is a boon; just this week, one of my tasks is to level and crown the frets of a brand new Gibson, which is disappointing to the owner. I’m also interested by the idea of lower fretwire, because I’m one of those guys that can’t stand jumbo frets, personally.

“All models now have Pearloid Inlays and the fingerboard is a thicker one piece rosewood which is sanded and buffed with a new oil treatment for smoother and easier playability.”

Nothing too crazy there. The new oil treatment could be cool, especially when most rosewood necks coming from Gibson right now are incredibly dried-out. I wonder just how much thicker these fretboards will be, but I wonder if they mention it only because of the minor controversy surrounding Gibson using laminated fretboards on models back in 2012. Many players were less than happy about the change (to put it mildly) but in response to questions about the laminates Juszkiewicz said “It actually doesn’t change the sound at all,” and “…actually improves the sound.” He also claimed it will “last longer,” but I guess we’ll see. Don’t be surprised if I politely disagree.

UPDATE: Holy shit, I didn’t even think about this until I scrolled through the conversation going on over at Offset Guitar Forum tonight. Again, the phrase “all models” is used here, which causes alarm when we remember that all models don’t have rosewood fretboards… Does this mean that even Les Paul Customs (which had ebony boards until the Government seizure/Henry and Fox and Friends jamboree of 2012 when Gibson switched to the option of baked maple or Richlite, a synthetic material) will now have rosewood instead? Because I hate to tell you Gibson, but we used to buy LPCs because they have ebony fretboards. Oh man, say it ain’t so.

“To take it a step further Gibson USA has increased playing comfort by widened the neck and fingerboard by .050 per side.”

Again, not necessarily a bad thing. I don’t know that many people are complaining that Gibson’s necks are too thin these days, but I’ll reserve judgement until I have one in my hand –– it’s really not a huge difference. This seems to be a reaction to player feedback on Gibson’s use of binding nibs on the fret ends of most bound models, which never bothered me personally but I’ve heard more than a few players complain that their strings are getting caught between the fret and binding as of late.

“Sparing no expense, Gibson USA even changed the internal wires from 28 awg to 26 awg, along with a new and improved jack design and together they give you an improved uninterrupted signal.”

Whoa. Slow down there, Gibson. Don’t go spending all of that precious money on such thick wire! Also, I wasn’t aware that my signal was being interrupted, but there you go. #newjack2015

“For 2015 Gibson will be producing gloss lacquer finishes and no more Satin or Vintage Gloss finishes. On top of all the upgrades Gibson USA did not stop there. They are now introducing a removable Les Paul pick guard with NO SCREWS NEEDED.”

This is possibly the most distressing passage from the now-removed Amazon page. With the doing-away of satin finishes, this could mean the end of sub-$1000 Gibson guitars, which I thought were best sellers for the company. Having quality, affordable guitars in the line should be important to both Gibson and consumers, so I’m hoping they’ll be introducing some models that retain the low price tag and quality of the Faded series.

Additionally, the language isn’t specific as to what type of finish the “gloss lacquer” might be, just that it’s lacquer. Hopefully this is just Gibson saying the company will still use nitrocellulose instead of switching to something else like acrylic.

Gibson have been shipping guitars for ages without installed pickguards, so this could be cool or not. How does it work? I don’t know, but we’ll all be keeping our eyes peeled on that one.

“In honor of Les Paul’s 100th birthday all LP and SG guitars will carry the 100 logo on the headstock and a Les Paul Hologram on the back of the headstock for authenticity and tribute to the man himself.”

It’s a well-known fact that Les Paul LOVED holograms, so I think we can all safely assume that this is what he wanted. I remember reading an interview where he voiced his distaste for the SG when it came out in ’61, which had a lot to do with the body shape and how they moved the neck pickup away from the neck, but Les also revealed that the main reason he wanted his name off of the guitar was due to the lack of holograms.

“Back in the ’50s I said to Ted [McCarty, Gibson CEO 1948-66] ‘Hey, I like what you got going here. It sounds good, plays alright. But the thing is there aren’t enough goddamned holograms on the thing.’ And Ted scratched his head, because we really didn’t have the technology back then, and we didn’t come back to the idea until they made the laser back in, was it ’60? When they slapped my name on the SG without asking, and I said, ‘Hey, whaddabout them holograms!’ but it was too late. So I had them take my name off.” (Gibson Les Paul Book, Bacon, pg 148*)

I’m sure that, were Les alive today, he would be overjoyed. I’m joking, of course. LES PAUL HATED HOLOGRAMS. He called them “3D-for-Devil pictures.”**

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Aside from the new logo looking a bit strange (see the Zero Fret Nut pic above) it is Les Paul’s handwriting and that’s a nice thing to have. This could also be one of the only truly collectable aspects of the guitar, so perhaps this change will work in its favor. Not mentioned in the above copy is that the Gibson Logo is swirly.

“To wrap everything up, each 2015 Gibson USA guitar ships in a Gibson Hard Shell case.”

Okay, this is great. No longer will customers have to argue with store staff about how their guitar actually, definitely does come with a case when they want to charge an extra $100 or give them a gig bag.

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All in all, this list of changes is pretty hard to stomach, especially when the one thing left out is just how much the price of guitars will increase. Now, prices do go up over time when manufacturing costs rise, but our friends at Reverb.com note that while a 2014 Les Paul Standard with flame top “…comes in at $2999, the 2015 equivalent will start at $3879, marking a roughly 29% increase.” That’s a HUGE MAP increase. How will it play out? We won’t know until they’re available.

Let me be clear: I love Gibson guitars, but this is crazy. Perhaps consumer feedback on this list of changes could do some good, but I believe they’ll end up doing far more harm than good. It’s never good to add features your customers don’t want when they’ve been asking for simple, well-built instruments for some time.

Like I said before, I guess we’ll have to wait and see…

…or this could all be a ploy to cause us to rush out and snatch up 2014 models. And then I think that perhaps this could all be just a 2015 model year only affair, meaning that things go back to the way they were in ’14. Who knows? Hopefully we’ll get that info soon.

*Not a real quote. I made that up.
**Also, totally not real.

UPDATE 9/24/14: I visited Guitar Center Seattle with a friend of mine tonight, and the store had just received the first shipment of 2015 Gibson guitars. Suffice it to say, all of the above is absolutely true, including the G-Force tuners on every guitar, the Zero Fret nut, and wider necks. I’ll be posting an in-hand review shortly. Until then, look on Gibson’s works, ye mighty, and despair!

 

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Whoa… Busy Month and a Blacktop Jazzmaster

It’s been quite a while since our last post, but for good reason: we have been the busiest we’ve ever been. Not only are our wares selling like hotcakes (Fortune 500 here we come?) but there has been a marked increase in patrons to our humble store. Some come in for work on their prized amp or guitar, some come to browse, and a few come in just to have a drink and hang out – exactly the kinds of things we’re about!

When you own a shop in a street-level garage that’s around 500 square feet, two or more customers can make it feel very, very busy. Add to this the army of gear we’ve acquired and a veritable mountain of repairs, and I think you could begin to infer just how busy we’ve been.

Even so, I thought I’d take this opportunity to update both the website and our faithful readers on just what the heck we’ve been doing this holiday season. I mean, it’s not all eggnog and carols and flasks of whichever alcohol we’re drinking these days!

The Modified Fender Blacktop Jazzmaster

IMG_1897-impDecember marked the end of a months-long project, one that took far longer to complete than I had expected. Why? Well, it’s because of that dad-blasted Gold Foil.

Our friend John (the owner of this fine machine) saw what we did ages ago with the Skyemaster and wanted something similar but tweaked to his personality. Two additional pickups were to be installed – a total of four on the guitar – to augment the already wide range of tones available to him. He provided a cool old Framus/Guyatone pickup for the middle position, and installing that required routing out the body and pickguard. Pretty straightforward.

However, John was really into the ethereal, otherworldly sounds that came from the Skyemaster’s behind-the-bridge unit, so finding a thin, small pickup that would fit under the adjusted string length of this model was a bit of a problem. We eventually decided that an old Dearmond/Rowe Gold Foil would do the trick, but that would present its own challenge: finding one for a good price.

John and I agreed that, with the recent spate of popularity surrounding these pickups, it would be a game of waiting to pounce on an under priced pickup to keep his already high costs down. I was more than happy to save my customer some money, but between searching and all of the other jobs I’ve had, it started to feel hopeless there for a bit. Luckily, after some time I was able to track one down that was in need of a rewind.

From then on it was smooth sailing. Here’s a brief rundown of what we have going on with this one:

-Stock neck and bridge pickups
-Added Guyatone/Framus pickup in the middle position
-Gold Foil (no base) mounted directly to the wood, no routing required!
-Three way toggle functions normally (N, NB, B)
-Two additional pickups are selectable via two push-pull pots on the Volume (middle) and Tone (behind-the-bridge) pots

So, how does it sound? It’s amazing. The middle pickup lends a quacky sort of darkness to the overall characteristics of the stock pickups, and the BTB unit enables all of the weird, Waterphone-like tones you’d expect. This is certainly one of my favorite mods, and it’s surprisingly useful. I’ll get around to doing this to my own guitar soon enough, I’m sure. Wanna hear how it sounds? Check it out:

There are three more videos detailing some of the quirky sounds available via the modified electronics. Feel free to watch!

I’m going to do a couple more quick updates in the next few days or so. Keep your eyes peeled! Lots more cool stuff on the way!

UPDATE: Special thanks to our pals over at Ampersand Amplification for this custom meme! We think it’s appropriate!

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Introducing the Skjelstang: Difficult to Pronounce, Impossible to Put Down

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A few months back our good friend Skye Skjelset of Fleet Foxes’ fame (also a stint in The Walkmen and his noise/free jazz band Japanese Guy) contacted us about wanting to build another custom guitar, and we couldn’t have been more delighted. See, we’ve done a lot of work for the Foxes and their various other projects, and each of those guys has amazing taste in gear, both vintage and custom. Any time we can help someone realize their vision – whether it’s world-touring acts or weekend warriors – it reminds us why we even do this job in the first place: we love music, we love guitars and we love people.

You may remember the last guitar we built for Skye some time ago: a four-pickup monstrosity of a Fender Jazzmaster lovingly dubbed ‘The Skyemaster’ complete with a vintage neck and vibrato, Mastery Bridge and two Lollar Jazzmaster pickups with a Gold Foil in the middle position and a Novak lipstick pickup behind the bridge. Let me tell you, what a guitar! The sounds one can coax from that beast are nearly endless, from your standard punchy Jazzmaster fare to amp-killing, raucous sound from the ‘foil and even ghostly, far-away eeriness from the BTB unit. It’s an unbelievable guitar and you can hear it on Japanese Guy’s latest release.

IMG_0916-impAs you can imagine, Skye was already having some big ideas for his ‘new’ guitar based on the Fender Mustang: ‘Stang body, 24” neck and three pickups, loosely inspired by the Mustang Thurston Moore was seen with back in the ‘90s. Skye had loved that guitar since high school (and who hasn’t!) and wanted something close to this ‘hero’ guitar.

We deliberated for weeks over specs – pickups, electronics, switching options, necessary tones and how to get them, and any little touches that would make this guitar truly his. Skye’s tastes, however bold they may be, are decidedly vintage in look and feel, so instead of sourcing a new body with custom routing, we were able to procure a vintage ’65 Mustang neck and a refinished body of similar vintage. (We did have to talk Skye out of buying an absolutely beautiful, original black ’65 Mustang for this project, citing our refusal to start removing wood from an otherwise perfectly-kept piece)

Here’s what we came up with:

  • vintage body, neck and hardware
  • three Lollar Blackface pickups (with deglossed pickup covers for that aged look)
  • custom switching that would allow the outer pickups to be selectable independently of the middle unit
  • 1 Meg volume and a 250K tone for the bridge and neck pickups
  • a Mustang three-way slider switch (on/off/phase) for the middle pickup and an individual roller volume for it in the other pickguard slot (1 meg)
  • Mastery Bridge (of course!)
  • a modified Jazzmaster vibrato arm
  • an aged mint green vintage-style guard from our friend fenderparts, which I later modified for the middle pickup and roller volume and toggle switch

The end result is elegant of the above list turned out to be a little mysterious and very punk rock. Honestly, nailing down the basic specs for this build was the easy part. Figuring out just how to make all of this work required some more thought. Read on for in-depth details on how we created “The Skjelstang!” (Pronounced: shyell-stang)

BODY SCULPTING

As you might expect, we had to remove quite a bit of wood to make this custom pickup scheme fit properly. Adding a middle pickup and a toggle switch to a Mustang means removing a lot of wood, but using a Jazzmaster-style roller volume bracket required not only more routing, but modifying the metal bracket for the usual rhythm circuit controls.IMG_0777

It seemed that the best place for the roller control was between the middle and neck pickups, given that the spacing between the bridge pickup and the slider switch was already so tight. I took out about 40% of the wood left between the neck and middle pickups to accommodate, and I took the wood down to just below the original routing depth to ensure that everything would fit three-dimensionally.

As for the bracket, I cut it in half and drilled new holes for proper mounting screw placement, then cut a channel in the middle of it for the roller disc to pass through. Because of the placement of the pickguard and the slot for the slider switch, I had to get creative with how we were mounting the mini Alpha pot to the bracket, flipping it around so the disc was on the inside of the bracket with the potentiometer’s casing facing the pickups.

ELECTRONICS

Certainly there are many ways to have the pickups working independently of one another, but serving Skye’s needs was the first priority. Initially we thought using a Jaguar switching plate to be the best option; the three on/off switches usually found on Jags could be repurposed to accommodate three pickups instead of the normal 2 pickups and ‘strangle’ switch combo, a modification which we’d done before with the Skyemaster. We also discussed using a ‘Wronski’ plate, so-called because of surf legend Dave Wronski’s custom blade switch plates on his guitars. Then there was the control plate found on the Kurt Cobain Jaguar, which has a toggle switch and an on/off switch for the strangle.

After discussing all of this with Skye, none of the above options were going to work; yes, Skye needs the third pickup to be independently selectable, but he was also hoping to be able to blend it in with the others regardless of pickup selection. This presented a slight challenge with respect to both wiring and space, but in the end I’m really proud of our solution.

IMG_0917-impOn the bass side of the Mustang body, you’ll usually see two three-way slider switches which govern the pickups. These switches not only turn the pickups on or off, but the third position reverses the phase of each unit, enabling more tones than a more simple layout might produce. This is one of the coolest things about Mustangs in my opinion.

Gleaning inspiration from both of the aforementioned guitars, we came up with a ‘best of both worlds’ scenario: both neck and bridge pickups are wired to the toggle first, then to the lead circuit controls just as you might find with a Jazzmaster.* The middle pickup is wired to its volume roller, then to the three-way slider so Skye can still control the middle volume independently while still opting for specific phase settings. The lead and middle circuits meet at the output jack, allowing the user to blend the middle in as needed or to cut the other pickups so the middle can be used independently. Pretty great!

*this, of course, is doing away with the rhythm circuit entirely

PLAYABILITY

IMG_0926-impThe vintage Mustang neck on this guitar has a 24″ scale, 7.25” radius fretboard, a new bone nut hand-cut by yours truly and original frets. I’ve dressed them, but in the future we may re-fret the neck altogether depending on how Skye feels about the guitar in a few months. And honestly, there’s only a little life left in those frets, so it’s better to do that sooner rather than later given the Foxes’ recording schedule. We’ll see.

As with all of Skye’s offset guitars, it was obvious that we’d be installing a Mastery Bridge. In our opinion, the Mastery Bridge is the best aftermarket upgrade you can get for your offset guitar so you can imagine that it not only sounds great but plays superbly with this bridge installed. Speaking of sound…

SOUND

Usually, a Mustang has two flat-pole Stratocaster-style pickups mated to the usual 250K pots. On the Skjelstang we used a 1 meg volume and a 250K tone coupled with a .047uf Orange Drop capacitor, which gives the guitar the ability to get VERY bright should Skye require it. His other guitars are mainly Jazzmasters and Jaguars, so this isn’t out of left field for him. We originally went with 1 meg controls for both volume and tone, but the result was so shrill that even my initial test run with the guitar was a painful exercise. Stepping down the tone to 250K really warmed it up, even at 10 on the dial. I would estimate that rolling off the tone 20-30% approximates more standard Mustang sounds.

Now that the guitar’s fully assembled and finalized, I can tell you that I enjoy immensely the addition of that middle pickup on this guitar. I would never refer to Mustangs as tonally limited, but I’m surprised at how much adding the extra pickup has opened up the sonic landscape of this instrument. Yes, having the middle paired with the neck or bridge pickup elicits quacky, nearly Stratocaster sounds, but the short scale of the Mustang combined with heavy strings makes for a more springy, unique tone. Running all three pickups together sounds HUGE, and reversing the polarity of the middle pickup makes for some entertaining rhythm sounds and haunting leads. Endless fun can be had here, folks.

At the end of the day, it’s all about serving the needs of the player, and in this case I feel as though we’ve hit the nail on the head. Now, that doesn’t mean we won’t change anything about the guitar down the line – we’ve made more than a few alterations to the Skyemaster, catering to whim after whim as Skye became more familiar with both the instrument as his personal needs. We fully expect some tweaks to happen, but in terms of taking the original concept and bringing it to life, I don’t think we could have done a better job!

Seriously, this thing is wild!

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EXTRA: eBay Seller fenderparts/portlandmusic Does the Impossible, Pleases Most Fastidious Man on Earth

CIMG5232(1)-impIf you’re anything like me – and God help you if you are – the more you get into vintage guitars, the more you start noticing all the little differences between the originals and their reissues. Some of these are slight and easily overlooked, like the narrow string spacing on a Japanese Jazzmaster vibrato or the “e” on a new Fender amp logo missing its little point. Other changes can be more glaring; for example, on the new Coronado reissue Fender’s replaced the original DeArmond-made pickups with Gretsch-style FilterTrons, likely because retooling the old ones is more hassle – and expense – than it’s worth. Plus, ‘Trons sound great, so who can complain?

IMG_7628-impFor some, these changes don’t make any difference; after all, a good guitar is a good guitar, so if an instrument sounds and plays great, all of that cosmetic stuff just doesn’t matter. Still, as the old internet axiom states, “What has been seen cannot be unseen,” and for many of us, once a design change or inconsistency is noted it’s hard to put it out of mind.

If you’re anything like me, then you might understand my dismay when I finally realized that the mint guard on my precious ’07 Fender Thin Skin Jazzmaster had a 45 degree bevel instead of the vintage-correct 60°. And if you’re anything like me, I probably just ruined your day.

Bevel, Biv, Devoe-tion

You may be wondering why this matters so much, and to be honest, it really doesn’t. I’m surprised it took me so long to notice, but out of all the changes made to guitar models over the years, this one ranks among the very least important. It bears no effect on the playability, comfort or performance of the instrument, and for most of you out there, if I didn’t write this freaking blog post about it you’d be none the wiser. It’s really a non-issue.

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But indulge me for a moment and take a look at these two sunburst Jazzmasters, a 1961 on the left and an 2011 on the right. Born 50 years apart, they’re both beautiful instruments, and each plays fantastically thank you very much. But did you notice how much more bold and eye-catching the guitar on the left is? Sure, it’s obviously vintage, the shell pattern is prettier, and that burst is perfectly worn. However, if the older guitar were completely clean, I’m willing to bet you’d notice a difference even if you couldn’t quite put your finger on what it was. I’m telling you, it’s the bevel!

Just like whitewall tires on a '50s Chevrolet, a wider pickguard bevel really sets off the look of a guitar.

Just like whitewall tires on a ’50s Chevrolet, a wider pickguard bevel really sets off the look of a guitar.

From an aesthetic perspective (read: to my eye) the deeper bevel can have a surprising impact on the looks of a given instrument; a steeper angle exposes more of the white part of the layers beneath, creating a sort of visual buffer between the burst and tort. This goes double for guitars that have genuine 1960s mint green guards, which have a much thicker middle black layer. That thicker ring around the guard makes vintage guitars ‘pop’ a little more than reissues.

Yes, this minuscule difference only bothers the most detail-obsessed folks on the planet, and I’m proud to be one of them. But if you’re the kind that gets stuck on minute details and you’re finding yourself with an itch you can’t scratch, what then? You could buy a real-deal vintage guard, but that privilege comes at a steep, steep price – may times in the $300 range! You could scour the net for repro guards, but as we all know, reissues are rarely reissues. What then?

Junkies, get your fix: eBay’s fenderparts has you covered. UPDATE: Jimi also runs eBay store portlandmusic, which has a huge selection of his Nitrate Tort guards. They’re beautiful. (Photo at the bottom of the page)

If you’re looking for a vintage-correct guard for your guitar, you can thank your lucky stars for Portland’s fabulous fenderparts. (Also portlandmusic) Owned and operated by Jimi Haskett, fenderparts is my first-call supplier of the coolest aftermarket guards on the planet, at least in my opinion. 

Not only does Jimi have his angle on the bevel (ha!) he’s also meticulous in choosing just the right materials for his guards. I’m talking spot-on mint green material, and he sources his beautifully-colored tort from Italy! Unfortunately, we don’t have any shots of them, so when we get one of his tortoise shell guards, we’ll be sure to follow up!

50 Shades of Green

CIMG5233When I first discovered Haskett’s amazing guards at the Spring Seattle/Tacoma Guitar Show, I knew I had to have one. From the few guitars I saw that had his work installed, I could tell that this admittedly nonessential upgrade was going to be the thing that took my guitar from a really great-looking reissue to a doppelganger for the real thing – not that I’m trying to fool anyone. A few weeks later, I took the plunge and waited anxiously for my guard.

Jimi shipped my order quickly, especially since my guard was made-to-order. When it arrived, I couldn’t wait to open the package even though my guitar was at home rather than at the shop. On first seeing the guard, my hopes couldn’t have been more adequately met: lightly aged, de-glossed and unbelievably close to a real early ‘60s mint guard, Jimi really impressed me with his attention to detail and deft execution. And the aging? Tastefully done and not too overblown.

CIMG5225Honestly, simply holding my Jazzmaster’s new garments made my eyes grow wide with an almost lustful anticipation, my mind racing as I imagined the ecstasy of stripping down my instrument to its most bare state. Oh, I marveled in the act of turning screw into wood, my hands on Blue’s waist, reveling in the unparalleled joy of playing dress-up with my favorite muse. Oh, the sweet music we’ll make together, my muse and I! Oh, how I can hardly wait to caress –

Whoa. I… I’m sorry. I guess I got carried away there. Do you mind if I – you don’t? Whew, okay. I’ll be right back.

*takes cold shower* Where was I? Ah, yes: the guard.

Installation was a breeze, save for some very minimal filing I had to do around the bridge thimbles holes. I don’t believe this is a shortcoming on Jimi’s part; having worked on nearly every conceivable year and model of the Fender Jazzmaster over the years, I can testify that the thimbles can indeed be in slightly different places, especially on some of the reissues. My guitar is an ’07 Thin-Skin, and even before ordering my guard from fenderparts I was aware that my thimbles were closer to the neck than usual but it intones perfectly, so I never gave it much thought. When I held Jimi’s guard up to my old reissue guard, sure enough his holes were a touch closer to the vibrato plate which perfectly echoed the vintage guard we had around the shop.

The Tease and the Reveal

IMG_7637-impWhen I finally had my guitar put back together, the visual difference was immediately apparent. Suddenly, I found myself in a heretofore unknown state of reissued bliss, my eyes affixed to my guitar as if it were brand new all over again. I really can’t describe how impressed I was with this guard, from the dead-on coloring and believable aging to the fit. Just look at it!

I now find myself recommending these guards to anyone that asks, and for a handmade product you’re not paying outrageous sums above what a normal one would cost. Most of his guards are in the range of $79 – $89, which could be off-putting for some. Still, with replacements already costing up to $70, an extra ten or twenty isn’t that out of the question. Like I always say, “Support the little guy!”

In short, Jimi Haskett really gets it. You see, there’s more to making a genuine replacement part than simply following the lines; there’s a character to old things, especially when they’ve come into such constant contact with human beings as guitars have, and this piece of plastic paraphernalia beautifully captures the look and feel of a truly old pickguard. I mean, we’ve all seen really tacky, completely obvious aging, right? Jimi’s work is nothing of the sort.

If you’re even considering a new guard for your old – or new – guitar, do yourself a favor and check out fenderparts on eBay.

And again, portlandmusic is his other eBay handle for tort guards and guitars!

 

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Before and after

That's damn good tort. Taken from an auction from portlandmusic on eBay.

That’s damn good tort. Taken from an auction from portlandmusic on eBay.

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Fastback ’59 Zebras: Show Ponies or Thoroughbreds? (Also, Horse Jokes)

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By Michael James Adams
Seattle-based hot-rod guitar company Fastback is Fastback at it again with their newly-released pickup set: The Fastback ’59 Zebras. Manufactured by hand with care, these pickups claim to be modeled after the fabled P.A.F. pickups found on our favorite vintage bursts, but do they live up to the hype? Let’s find out!

A Horse of a Different Color

The Fastback ’59 Zebra pickups are hand-wound at Fastback’s Seattle HQ and spec’d out like the original PAFs we’re all so fond of. Visually, this set couldn’t look more right; the cream bobbins are just the right color, neither looking too yellow or too brown as aged parts so often do. Customers can expect a choice between AlNiCo 2 and 5 magnets for different tonal variations, with the 2 magnets exhibiting softer, spongier highs and lows with round mids than their ‘three more’ counterparts. The pickups come with a heavy wax bath to combat microphonics – breaking with true vintage tradition to the joy of most people – and single braid wire for easy installation.

Our set was wound slightly hotter than the measurements listed on the website (not that I’m complaining!) with the bridge measuring in at 8.4K and the neck at 7.6K. Installation was a breeze, and within no time I was slinging hot licks all over the place. Or whatever people do with guitars these days.

With these pickups loaded into my recently-acquired ’97 Squier Vista Super-Sonic, the difference in sonic fidelity was immediately identifiable. Of course the Zebras were a marked improvement over the stock Korean ‘buckers, but being a guitar tech I’m no stranger to vintage PAFs and I must say I was impressed. Fastback’s really hit the nail on the head here, folks.

Black and White and Cred All Over

The neck pickup had all of the airy, vocal midrange I expected from a pickup claiming to be a PAF, but few of them ever really get all the way there. The lows were pronounced but not overbearing, and the highs were sweet and supple, with a warmth and body all their own. Clean or dirty, this pickup retained the clarity and note definition associated with classic units. With overdrive, I was enveloped in heavenly fat tone.* Really a superb pickup in every way.

The bridge unit absolutely blew me away; creamy, chunky drive that stayed tight enough to appease my modern sensibilities, but was in no way sterile or shrill. The midrange was warm yet distinct, bringing to mind my favorite Jimmy Page sounds from How the West Was Won. Highs were stinging but round, while the lows were well-defined and present, but not as much as one might expect given current “PAF” offerings. Let me explain:

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Our test unit was 8.4K, slightly hotter than the one pictured above.

Though not as ample as I expected, the lows have a slightly different EQ curve, which seems to sacrifice some of the really round, fat low-lows in favor of a slightly higher bass frequency center, which means it never gets woofy or muddy. The E and A strings particularly had a very pleasant midrange kick, but were resplendent with a softer, woody overtone that immediately harkened back to the golden era of single-cut solid body guitars.

Again, the Jimmy Page comparison is apt here, because while his tone in HTWWW is freaking huge, I wouldn’t even begin to describe it as being as big and spectrum-killing as so many of our modern guitar ‘heroes’ might have you believe. No, Page’s tone is focused and cutting, neither overly bright or bassy. In a word, perfect – same as these pickups. I imagine the lows would be more pronounced in a more traditional mahogany body/maple top instrument, but I really dig the sound.

When used in tandem, these little beasts really come alive! The vocal qualities I mentioned earlier are magnified, with that quintessential open ‘ah’ vowel tone cutting through any dense mix. Literally anything I played with this selection sounded good, and that’s saying a lot. From legato minor-key runs to all-out, cacophonous freak out sessions, everything was gloriously tuneful.

I didn’t mention how well these pickups respond to tone knob variations. Even with a small twist from 10 to 8, the pickups warmed up beautifully, shifting the focus from brilliance to the woodier qualities we all associate with mahogany guitars. Thing is, this guitar isn’t mahogany, it’s basswood. Sure, the Super-Sonic isn’t the traditional guitar we’re all familiar with, but all of the warmth and lively sound I’d expect from a Les Paul was at my fingertips in a decidedly Fender package. Drop these pickups in a Les Paul, and I guarantee you’ll be thrilled.

Yay or Neigh?

Overall, I couldn’t be happier with these pickups. They’re every bit as magical as some of the original units I’ve played, with just a touch of modern wizardry thrown in. Too often, major pickup manufactures seem to be following in the current business model of most amp manufacturers, where doing absolutely everything comes before simplicity and good tone. We’re often left with amps that do everything averagely, with obscene amounts of high and low end which ultimately translates into a lackluster playing experience.

So you can understand why I really appreciate that Fastback has created a pickup that isn’t super hi-fi and doesn’t try to cover the breadth of the sonic spectrum. Instead of making a pickup that has huge amounts of earth-shattering low end and enough highs to blind a bat, it seems like Fastback tailor-made a set to suit full band situations with a focused, brilliant tone that cuts as much as it grooves. Undeniably fun, and easy on the wallet too!

Equine jokes.

Fastback ’59 Zebras
$80 each/$150 per set
Available direct or via Mike & Mike’s Guitar Bar

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*Not to be confused with heavenly Fatone, which would be soooo dreamy

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Couch Guitar Straps: Vegan and Sweatshop-Free in the USA

IMG_4087By Michael James Adams

This year, my birthday was a tough one; the more my wife and family asked what gifts I wanted, the less I could even think about answering that question. Truth is, I didn’t really want or need anything, at least as far as I could tell. That is, until my wife reminded me of something I’d mentioned ages ago: I was getting tired of my lame black straps, and had been obsessed with Couch Guitar Straps for years. Bingo.

Like many of my friends, my first exposure to Couch Straps – at least that I can recall – was from Nels Cline, guitar wizard and purveyor of atonal noise/free jazz extraordinaire. I picked up a promo copy of Wilco’s Sky Blue Sky back in 2007 and was blown away by both his ferocity and tact, so you can imagine how little time passed before I started analyzing his back catalogue, his gear, his technique, tone and style. And in every photo I saw, there was that same jet-black strap with the offset white stripe running its entire length, not simply holding up his guitar but elevating it, enhancing it.

I’m in an italics kind of mood. Can you tell?

Now, that man is the epitome of cool in my book, so I had to find out who made that strap. It’s been so long that I don’t remember exactly how I found them, but eventually I did, and so I spent three days just soaking in all of the colors, materials and options, of which there are many. For whatever reason, though, I never ended up making an order, likely because of my legendary gear distraction, where I get hooked on something and then forget about it once another great piece of kit comes along. But fast-forward a handful of years and here I am, all Couched up.

This Los Angeles-based company has been around since 1999, and prides itself on making quality, road-tested straps that are sure to hold up to the rigors of rock n’ roll life and looking sharp while doing so. Their straps are made from finish-friendly vinyl and vintage, deadstock and recycled materials. Ever been inside a Mercedes from the 1980s or a ’70s Volkswagen and thought, “I want this seat near my guitar, like, all the time.” Well, guess what! Couch does that.

Also a point of interest is that Couch Straps are vegan and sweatshop-free, which is easy on the soul and conscience of the would-be customer. And they make a good point about their business philosphy, too:

Look, most guitar straps are either really bad or really overpriced. On top of that, hardly anyone is making them vegan and sweatshop free in The United States. Why can’t someone else just make a guitar strap that isn’t either completely generic like the music store ones or looks pretty good but cheaply made and overpriced like the fashion strap companies? …[We’re] not into purchasing the actual hides of leather and then stamping the tabs out of asymmetric sides of beef before sewing them on our straps. The buying and selling of animal skin carcasses was a little too weird for us, thanks.

Well, I’m sold!

My wife and I spent nearly an hour pulling out my guitars that desperately needed cool straps and discussing our favorite color combinations. The company’s Racer X straps alone have three pages of color options on their website, so for us this was no easy choice. After much deliberation, screaming, hopelessly deadlocked voting and tearful apologies, we finally decided that my Sonic Blue ’07 Fender Thin Skin Jazzmaster (which I affectionately call “Artoo”) would be best served by a white Racer X strap with an orange stripe, in keeping with the Rebel Alliance color motif. It was also decided that my 2011 Fastback ’52 Telemaster needed a cool strap of its own, and I couldn’t think of anything better than the Vintage Cadillac Sunburst Deadstock Luggage strap. And, because I just stuff bills in my left front pocket, my wife bought me the company’s Jet Age Slimline Wallet!

When the straps finally came – and quickly, I might add! – I didn’t even have to open the package to know that I was in for a treat. It’s not often that companies will put in the time to make customers feel like they’re really appreciated, but imagine the feeling of unbridled giddiness I had upon pulling this one out of my mailbox:IMG_4196

Even my invoice had this personal touch, with a sort of tree/man hybrid flailing his arms/branches praising the Jet Age wallet with glee. I was thrilled, and the straps were cool, too. The end.

NO! Not the end. The straps? Amazing, actually.

IMG_4070You might be able to tell from the pictures, but I can’t make it clear enough that the materials and workmanship are both top notch on these straps. Made from soft automotive grade vinyl, there are no harsh edges or stiffness, no skipped stitches, not even an unsightly hanging thread to be found. The straps, if you didn’t know, measure at about 67″ when fully extended, whereas most straps are around the 60″ mark. This means there’s a lot of room for adjustment when you first don your new strap, and maybe a bit more than you’d expect.

The white vinyl on my Racer X strap was pure and unmarred by shipping, and the contrasting orange stripe was expertly applied. The strap ends look sturdy as hell, with plenty of secure stitching throughout and three rivets on the rear tab for extra reinforcement. Everything about these straps screams quality.

The Racer X strap really excels at adding to, not taking away from the already hip looks my my instrument. While the Couch strap certainly does stand out, it’s neither gaudy nor overly flashy. Ah yes, the Couch Strap knows its place, never overtaking the stately presence of a well-chosen instrument.

To be sure, I’m absolutely in love with the Racer X strap, but what really surprised me was how ‘in love’ I fell with the Vintage Cadillac Sunburst Deadstock strap, made from actual Cadillac Hardtop vinyl. When we ordered it, I was positive it would look great, but not necessarily any different from the other black straps I already have. I was wrong; as soon as it was out of the bag the waxy shine of the vinyl caught my eye, and the vibrant orange and yellow-orange stitching really looked great even in the light of our crappy apartment. And no matter which of my guitars I paired it with, it just fit. At first I thought that maybe I could get away with it being a community strap for all of my axes, but there’s no doubt in my mind that I’ll be ordering more straps from Couch in the future. This one is staying on the Telemaster.

IMG_4097Often when I wear a leather or vinyl strap from other makers, I expect that the strap will have a rough material on its underside and that the weight of the guitar will pull whatever shirt I’m wearing into an uncomfortable bunch on my shoulder. Not so with Couch, ladies and gents. It’s clear to me that a lot of thought went into designing these straps, and I can honestly tell you that they are the most comfortable 2″ straps I’ve ever used. Ever had a strap “bite” your neck, rubbing it raw during a show? That’s not going to happen here, folks. That vinyl is soft and smooth.

It seems to me that Couch’s offerings are tailor-made for the working musician, and they’ve taken into account all of the things that non-musical designers might miss. In fact, the thing that really gets me about Couch is that they’re not only made for musicians, but by musicians. Other Mike’s Band Goldie Wilson has shared the stage with 60’s power-pop band The New Fidelity, which is led by Daniel Perkins, founder of Couch Guitar Straps. Of course, The New Fidelity rocks Couch straps and the makers have been using the same couch straps since 1999.

As for the Jet Age Slimline Wallet, I can vouch for its 1960s TWA cool and ability to organize even the messiest of pockets. Made from vintage blue vinyl with orange and white racing stripes, this wallet has a My bills are cozy, all tucked in together while my cards, gym badge and other miscellany are held tight in the Jet Age’s amply-sized pockets. Like the straps, the wallet is soft and well-made, and all of the stitching is top-notch. The interior pocket is lined in fabric inked with the Couch logo, and though the website warns that the ink may rub off on bills for a short time after initial use, I haven’t noticed anything like that. IMG_3994

The wallet fits great in my pocket, and though I can’t speak for every pair of jeans on the planet, I’d imagine that the size – maybe 20% or so larger than a wad of folded cash – would slide into most pockets with ease.

After a week of normal use, going in an out of pockets and being pulled apart to insert all of the crazy amounts of money I make and consequently flash at all of the fanciest of clubs, the wallet is starting to break in a bit. The edges are loosening up and becoming more flexible, not that the material was stiff to begin with. I’ve already managed to partially rip the double stitch on the left side of the orange stripe, but I doubt that has anything to do with the quality of this piece. I tend to be hard on things like this, and I’ll admit that until I had this I wasn’t a ‘wallet guy’ and haven’t used one for quite some time. I usually keep them in a coat or bag and not on my person, so this one is getting a lot of use. All of the stitches that are holding the thing together are intact and tight. Another positive note: this wallet is getting all kinds of stares and compliments each time I pull it out to pay for something. ALL KINDS.

While the products of this small company are truly great in their own right, I would point out that the photos on the website aren’t as helpful as they could be when it comes to selecting a complementary color scheme for your instrument. While the photos are individually fine, the colors vary a bit from shot to shot, making it difficult to nail down exactly what you’re getting. While this is a minor quibble, I could see how that might be a problem for some customers.

IMG_4101The only other thing I could think of that might be a problem for some would be how long the straps are in relation to the adjustment buckle. Because I’m used to shorter, more standard-length straps, it took a short while to grow accustomed to the buckle sitting in the low shoulder area of my back instead of between my side and instrument. This isn’t necessarily a complaint, and something that most players may not even notice. (OCD is a hell of a drug!) The buckle is virtually undetectable as it is, and after a few sessions with it I no longer feel the difference. I thought it worth mentioning this because I tend to be way too positive about things I like and therefore gloss over the negative aspects of things, however slight. I’m trying to be objective! So there. Fine. I’m sorry, Couch. *folds arms*

As I’m sure you might have guessed, I’m extremely happy with my Couch straps and wallet. I never dreamed that I’d have straps that feel comfy AND look cool. Until now, those two attributes seemed mutually exclusive! These days, guitar shops seem overrun by faux-rock designs peppered with checkerboards, skulls and vaguely indie branding that borders on twee at best. With Couch, the designs are solid, timeless, and sometimes a little bit cheeky. With Couch, $35 gets you a hell of a lot of strap.

Go buy some now, please. And while you’re at it, you forgot my birthday. Buy me more! You might even see Couch Guitar Straps at the Guitar Bar in the coming months…

-Michael James Adams

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Fastback’s T-Master: The Hot-Rodded Masterpiece You’ve Always Wanted

Last month we peeked under the hood of Fastback’s Cabo model, a guitar that impressed us with its great out-of-the-gate tone and workhorse aesthetics. This time Fastback is back with its T-Master model for us to work over, and I’m excited. With so many D.I.Y “custom shops” cropping up all over the place, it’s good to know that these instruments are being made right in my own back yard, by players and for players. Come with me as I get taken for a ride…

The T-Master

Damn.

A blend of two perennial favorites, the T-Master is Fastback’s guitar that never was. Borrowing the electronics and hardware complement of a Telecaster, the T-Master superimposes those familiar traits onto a vintage-correct offset Jazzmaster body. I’m a huge fan of both of the aforementioned guitars, and I have to say that the combination absolutely stunned me. The moment I saw the vintage blonde ’52 model I knew I wanted one, and just looking at it I could tell that the guitar sounded great. Boy, was I right!

Specs on this model are identical to the other models, save for the beautifully-grained swamp ash body (Alder on opaque finishes), Joe Barden bridge and compensated saddles, and Lollar Special T pickups. The guitar boasts the familiar 25.5″ scale length and bolt-on 21 fret neck of your typical California dream, and they now include G&G Cases. The body looks large at first, but believe you me it’s one of the most balanced instruments I’ve ever played. Weight ratios are such that the guitar hangs on a strap without shifting this way or that, and the guitar is in the easy-on-the-back 7-8lb range.

When I reviewed Fastback’s Cabo guitar, I was surprised by just how loud it was when played acoustically. The T-Master’s even louder, no joke. To illustrate just how great this “feature” is, let me tell you a little story: My wife was in the kitchen* while I was playing the T-Master in our living room. That week I was focusing on riffs from The Darkness, as this was right around the time they came through Seattle on their reunion tour. Now, from the other room, I heard my wife exclaim, “I believe in a thing called loooooooove!”

Think about this for a moment: I was in the living room, jamming away unplugged. My wife was a room away in the kitchen. The kitchen. When’s the last time someone in a whole other room could hear what you were playing on your solid body electric guitar? Usually, if you’re any distance away from the guitar–be it a Tele or a Paul–all you hear is the springy “plink” of the strings, not fully defined notes. I’m not saying this guitar will compete with an acoustic, but it’s much, much louder than one would expect.

Joe Barden bridge and compensated saddles!

Impressed? I was. Imagine my further elation when, upon plugging into my Marshall I was greeted with some of the most strident tones I’ve heard from a bolt-on guitar. Equipped with Lollar Special T pickups, this guitar had the girth and mid-kick of higher-output pickups, but I found that the guitar wasn’t simply louder, but that its most sonorous frequencies were moved forward in the overall mix. Notes jumped up to greet me like a Labrador ready for walkies.

I will say that, even though I’m a huge fan of Jason Lollar’s pickups, I prefer the Vintage T’s to the Specials. The Specials are great pickups for sure, but just a tad darker than I expected, especially when playing a guitar that has any kind of Telecaster vibe. In its current configuration, the T-Master had more bite than humbuckers, but less than single coils with more traditional output, which might be a huge plus for other players. Even with the tone control maxed, I had to bump up the treble a number or two when I needed spanky, Paisley-approved twang. It’s also worth noting that while Lollar Pickups are an option on Fastbacks’ line, they also are winding their own pickups in-house, allowing them to tailor the tonality of each of their guitars. This is exciting news, so expect a review soon!

Even with that small complaint, this guitar really shined when I took solos. Played through the same amps mentioned in the previous portion of this article, as well as a bevy of dirt boxes, the T-Master retained its own character. Single note runs had equal amounts of bite and body, and full chords remained tight and true. Digging in with a pick revealed just how much this guitar loves to rock, and whether it was searing blues or all-out rock, the T-Master delivered. As a side note, this guitar loves to be fingerpicked. Quick country runs were no problem for this beast, but it also responded well to neck-position jazz tunes. Whether saturated in dripping gain or set for glassy cleans, the T-Master weathered it all.

Let there be no mistaking it: the T-Master is a brilliant guitar and I’m in love with it. Other than the pickup choice–which is honestly more a matter of personal preference than a strict denouncement of the manufacturer’s specs–I have little in the way of complaints. On this guitar’s see-thru finish more so than The Cabo’s basic black, it was perhaps more evident that there were some very minor fit-and-finish issues ranging from some slightly uneven polishing on the maple fretboard to the thin nitro finish sinking into the pores of the swamp ash body. The website doesn’t specify an “open pore” finish, so I assumed that this wasn’t intentional. Mark tells us that, because this guitar was one of the first they built, they learned a lot from that initial run. Current models have filled grain and glassier finishes, to which I can attest.

Still, these are very minor nitpicks, and neither did they really bother me nor prevent me from playing as great as I ever have on these guitars. In fact, I might go so far as to say that I experienced one of my most enjoyable practices in a long time employing this guitar. Not only did I feel like a total badass just strapping on the T-Master, but with a big, lively tone and the sheer ostentation of the guitar I was fielding questions and taking friends for test drives before the night was out. One thing’s for certain: Both of the guitars we tested carried with them that nigh-unquantifiable quality that turns a good guitar into a great one. That quality? Fun. These guitars are absolutely a blast to play.

I. Love. This.

Speaking of fun, did I mention the neck plate? Ho, ho! Dear reader, feast thine eyes on this! We all know that when you want to date a vintage bolt-on guitar you have to have done your research to decrypt the numbers stamped on the neck plate. Fastback makes certain you’ll never have this problem when dating your guitar, thanks to their “Pinup Girl” system. That’s right, each year of production gets its own specific pinup girl. Seeing that each time I picked up the guitar let me know I was in for a treat, I can tell you that.

At the end of the day, it’s always exciting to witness the progress of a fledgeling brand, and even more so if said brand is making phenomenal instruments. It’s worth noting that Fastback is still a relatively young company (they’ve only built 12 guitars to date) but given the truly impressive nature of their first batch, it’s a good bet that Fastback is in this race to win. 

Do yourself a favor and get your hands on a Fastback as soon as possible, preferably before they take off so you can brag about knowing them before they got big. Because they will, and then you won’t have the smug satisfaction of having known about them first. You hipster.

UPDATE 10/25/12

Yeah, I totally bought this one. After months of pining for it–and going through three other guitars without satisfaction–I couldn’t stand not having this guitar as part of my collection. I just played my first gig with it, and I have to say it’s living up to all of my expectations. Of course, I did change out those pickups!

*Note: My wife was in the kitchen circumstantially; this is not where she usually belongs. She does not have to ‘make me a sandwich’, nor do I tell her to ‘get back in [there]’. Mike and Mike’s Guitar Bar believes in gender equality, and as such, I sometimes cook dinner.
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Ampersand Sound Solutions’ Cherry Bomb is the… Bomb?

IED? No. C4? Grenade? Warhead? Whatever the kids are saying these days, one thing is for certain: this amp is frightfully good.

Owen Backtacks and Paul Campbell of Ampersand Sound Solutions

Back in late July, the boys from Ampersand Sound Solutions (henceforth referred to as Ampersound) stopped on by the Guitar Bar for a “demo and drink” session–a great way to spend a Saturday afternoon, if I do say so myself. In tow was their entirely hand-made creation, which they lovingly refer to as the Cherry Bomb. Preemptive pun apology: This thing has explosive tone.

Mike B. will likely brand me a heretic for this, but I have a confession to make: I’ve never played a Tweed Bassman that I liked. There, I said it. Black and Silverface models are the ones I connect with, but each and every time I’ve plugged into a ’59 Bassman–vintage or reissue–I just couldn’t get past what I felt to be sterile tone and a lack of punch. I felt this way so strongly that, for a time, I associated all tweed amps with lackluster tone and avoided them at all costs. I know, pretty harsh.

Purists will likely burn me at the stake, but even if I never liked them I fully understand why they’re so coveted. The ’59 Bassman circuit is regularly lauded for their touch sensitivity, natural compression, simplicity and ability to fill a room with lots of sound. These are all qualities I look for when choosing an amp, but something about this model just doesn’t work for me. Maybe it’s the 4×10″ speaker complement, the clean-as-can-be circuit design (I like just a touch of hair on my clean sounds) or the loud/louder volume controls. Still, when other people play them, I think they sound fantastic.

Enter the Cherry Bomb, Ampersound’s tweaked and beefed-up version of the ’59 Bassman circuit. Ampersound have taken liberties with this tried-and-true circuit design, and the results are impressive, especially for a guy like me. The most notable difference between the stock model and the Cherry Bomb is that they’ve substituted Sovtek 6550WE power tubes whereas originals are 6L6 based. And wouldn’t you know it, 6550s are my favorite tube. Remember that punch I whined about earlier? They deliver that punch, but retain the transparency of 6L6 tubes with just a bit more headroom. Rectifier is a 5U4GB, which works in tandem with the 6550s to provide healthy sag.

Other tweaks include inputs decoupled from the rest of the circuit (for both cleanliness and safety’s sake) and beefier power diodes and filtering in the bias circuit for stability in less than ideal conditions. This means the amp is better able to handle fluctuations in voltage without the kid glove treatment or catastrophic failure.

All of this is fine and good, but there’s one question that I know anyone reading this is asking: “How does it sound?” Pretty damn good. The boys have spared no expense in making this amp an exercise in tonal bliss, and the result is an amp with all of the dynamics, compression and warmth of the original, but with more… everything. It has punch, precision control over volume, and an updated tone that is essentially everything I felt was missing about the originals I’ve played. While it retains the woody texture of the Fender design, the Cherry Bomb inexplicably doubles down on tonal control, with controls that are not only precisely centered on aural sweet spots, but provide a vast range of variation with the turn of a knob. I swear, I’ve never heard an amp react so noticeably to minor tweaks, like a solider taking orders. Especially that Presence control, which is a knob that I usually set at minimum on most amps; this one was actually usable without destroying my ears.

Why is this? Owen Backtacks of Ampersand Sound Solutions explains:

“…we modified the presence circuit to use a 25k pot instead of the usual 5k as we found the standard Bassman circuit was rather inefficient at controlling the negative feedback and was inherently leaking some voltage across that pot unnecessarily. Now the presence control is way smoother and more pronounced.”

All of this adds up to more control and less harshness. It’s not just the high frequencies that are worth mentioning here; plenty of bass and a woody-yet-full midrange add up to a delightfully rich sound, and no matter what settings I used on the amp I couldn’t find one that wasn’t usable. It didn’t matter which input we plugged into–or if we jumpered them–the Cherry Bomb does not have a bad sound in it. This thing would be a huge asset in a studio environment–it could even be the only amp around and still cover all of the bases. Wooly jazz tones? Check. Glassy Fender brilliance? Check. Goosed Marshallesque mids? Checkmate.

Mike B. taking the Cherry Bomb for a test drive. Dig on that Paisley Telecaster!

Cranking this amp is a joy. In our small shop, we didn’t have the ability to go as full-on loud as we would have liked (the less our neighbors hate us the happier we are) but even so, I was really struck by how this amp never muddied up. The higher that volume knob went, the more three-dimensional this amp sounded. While it’s designed for clean headroom, the amp took on a really pleasant sort of grit once we hit 5, though in our test it never went into full on drive territory. Turning up, it just kept on sounding great, seemingly egging us on to go even higher.

Ever played an amp that felt like it was having more fun than you? That’s the Cherry Bomb. And did I mention that this amp LOVES pedals? I just so happened to have my monolithic pedal board on hand, and I decided to see if I could tame this amplifier. It responded dutifully to medium overdrive courtesy of the Fulltone OCD, taking the middy presence of that pedal and imparting its own roundness and bite. I could have nailed SRV, Angus Young or Kerry King here.

Moving on to a Z.Vex Fuzz Factory, I was surprised to hear the amp respond differently, cheerfully lapping up all of the harsher fizziness I could muster and throwing back some of its own in return in true ’60s fashion, as well as thickening up  on the low end. A pedal famous for its ability to kill amplifiers due to its excessive amount of volume, I’ve never been able to use the Fuzz Factory past its 10 o’clock setting with my Marshall JMP. I’m happy to report that the Cherry Bomb took noon to 1:30 in stride, shrugging off my puny attempts at ruination.

Switching out for a Smallsound/Bigsound FUCK Overdrive (an amazing pedal we’ll be reviewing sometime soon) this amp went from a classic rock powerhouse to a harbringer of sonic doom of apocalyptic proportions. Oscillations, gated fuzz, and even maxing out both volume and gain couldn’t KO this one; it seemed to have a death wish, smiling all the while. It. Sounded. Huge.

My final test for breaking up an amp involves what I call “Organ Tone”: my VPJR volume pedal, an EHX Micro POG, a Line 6 DL4 and the Strymon Bluesky Reverberator. Everything is set to full on the Micro POG, the DL4 has a Gilmourish slow delay and a slight boost, and the Bluesky is on its room setting, with the most cavernous reverb one could ever ask for. While this usually produces a beautiful, make-you-say-hallelujah pipe organ sound, when paired with the wrong amp it could also provide huge amounts of breakup. Surprisingly, the amp didn’t break up at all and was possibly the best example of that tone that I’ve heard. And once again, the Cherry Bomb was all, “Like, whatever.”

Some of the tonal goodness of this amp can also be attributed to its mismatched speaker complement: two Jensen P10Q ALNICOs and two Celestion Greenbacks. In this configuration, each set of speakers plays well with the other, making up for what the other set is lacking. The P10Qs have the depth and presence that the Greenbacks lack, whereas the Greenbacks bring their signature midrange focus to the mix, with an old-school crispiness that makes for an exceedingly versatile setup.

Words can only do so much when speaking of tone, but as for aesthetics I can just show you how breathtakingly good-looking this amp is:


It could be furniture, but it’s also an amp! The cabinet has nearly the same dimensions as a traditional Bassman, but is just a bit taller and shallower from front to back. Speakers attach to a Birch ply baffle and are housed in a beautifully crafted, dovetailed solid Cherry cabinet that one has to see to truly believe. The face of the amp is capped off in flamed maple, with precisely rounded corners and finishing touches that all spell Q-U-A-L-I-T-Y. From wiring to construction, this thing is a beast!

I know I’ve talked and talked about this amp already, so I’m going to sum it all up for you: Ampersand Sound Solutions has a real winner on its hands with this one, and the amp is exciting as hell; you’d be wise to look out for this one. Whether you like Tweed Bassman amps or not, this is one to watch. If you love ’em, this one could provide you with a more versatile version of your beloved tweed friend that’s great for gigs or recording. If you’re like me, it could mean sonic salvation, a tonal transformation, a Bassman Baptism of sorts.

All I can say is, I’m a believer.

-Michael James Adams

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